Authors: Penny McCall
Ace Is Wild
VIVIENNE FOSTER SLIPPED THROUGH THE DOORS OF
the Oval Room at the Fairmont Copley Plaza Hotel, easing into the shadows next to a potted palm in the corner by the cash bar. Any Boston native, not to mention most New En-glanders, would be familiar with the Oval Room. It was historically significant, artistically important, architecturally stunning, and socially desirable. But estrogen charged? Definitely not an everyday occurrence, and one those who normally frequented the Oval Room would have pooh-poohed at.
But not Vivi. She’d been prepared for this. And she’d come anyway. Glutton for punishment, that’s what she was.
“What can I get you, darlin’?” the bartender asked her.
Vivi peered through the foliage and discovered him standing in her neck of the woods, at the end of the bar.
“Trying to keep a low profile here,” she said under her breath.
“Something tropical,” he decided, eyes on the greenery, not getting with the skulking program. “Piña colada? Mai tai?”
Vivi gauged the level of sexual tension in the place. “How about a fire hose?”
The bartender grinned. “What kind of fun would that be?”
“Planning to console the losers?”
“One or two of them, anyway.”
He winked and headed off to fill a drink order for the aforementioned potential losers, which would be any number of the rich, bored socialites crowded at round tables, some of them with their chairs turned backward so they didn’t have to crane their necks to see the rainbow of men lined up across the low stage erected at the opposite end of the room. Every few minutes one of the men would be trotted forward, and the socialites would go into a frenzy— bidding, of course, since it was all in the name of charity. Tax write-offs were clearly not the fringe benefit they had in mind, though, and since the ratio of debutantes to beefcake was about twenty to one, and there was enough combined heat to set off the overhead sprinklers, the bartender—not to mention husbands, fiancés, limo drivers, and shower massagers—stood a good chance of getting lucky.
It was exactly what Vivi had anticipated, except this version came with sound, and it was already giving her a headache. She tried to shut out the cacophony of shouting, laughing, shrieking female voices, concentrating instead on the men being auctioned off. Tall men, short men, stocky or slender, in every skin tone from Michael Jackson to, well, Michael Jackson. They were all handsome and fit, all well-respected members of the Boston business or social communities, all decked out in evening wear and encouraging smiles. Or nearly all.
One man stood at the end of the line, a little apart from the rest of the male smorgasbord. It wasn’t distance that separated him, though, it wasn’t his clothing, or his stature in the community.
Vivi recognized Daniel Pierce from his photo, but she hadn’t been prepared for the impact he made in the flesh. Not his flesh, hers.
The emcee announced him, and proceeded to give a simpering commentary, probably laced with vital statistics and sexual innuendo. All Vivi heard was
wah, wah, wah,
because the minute Daniel Pierce began to make his way down the bachelor auction runway she’d gone into slack-jawed, heart-pounding, juices-flowing hormonal overload.
He strolled the catwalk like a
model, one hand stuffed in his pocket, his jacket hitched back behind it. He had the body and the attitude to pull it off. The face could have been carved out of granite. Except for the eyes. The eyes were, well, piercing, dark and intense, and more than a little predatory.
Fully half the women sat back in their seats and rethought their plans to bid on him. A little danger in a man was exciting, but little didn’t seem like an adjective that applied to Daniel Pierce. In any way.
Vivi should have been busy taking stock of her surroundings and formulating a plan, but her eyes were glued to the stage, and what she was feeling could best be described as “fatalism.” Sure, the sense of helpless inevitability ranked somewhere below tingling nerves and throbbing body parts for sheer volume, but it managed to make enough noise so she couldn’t forget that the man on the catwalk was in mortal danger. And the man on the catwalk didn’t look like he’d be inclined to believe her.
So she’d have to make him.
It wasn’t going to be easy.
The elegant lines of the tuxedo couldn’t camouflage his strength, and it wasn’t just the muscles flexing when he walked, it was the way he carried himself—arrogant, in charge, take no prisoners. There was a distinct unevenness in his stride, but the expression on his face dared anyone to feel sorry for him.
Vivi wasn’t about to make that mistake. Underestimating him—or overestimating herself—wouldn’t be wise, either. She had a feeling Daniel Pierce was going to defy prediction. Not a confidence-inspiring thought—but in the absence of confidence she’d always found impulse a pretty good substitute. As impulsive as a woman like her could be, that is.
Before the urge to overthink matters could get the better of her, she eased out of the shrubbery. And into Freak Central. While her mind had been wandering aimlessly in the interest of procrastination, all the men but Pierce had been auctioned off and joined their buyers in the audience. The bidding had opened on Pierce, and women were bouncing in their chairs, hands in the air, shouting each other down. Even the ones who’d decided not to bid were caught up in the craziness, egging their friends on to make even bigger fools of themselves. Vivi saw a woman duck under her table and figured the action was going to head the Chippendales route any moment.
She took another good, long look at Pierce, wondering how he’d fooled these people into thinking he wanted anything to do with them. Or maybe that was part of the attraction. The sad truth was that women always wanted the guy they couldn’t have.
Well, Vivi didn’t want him. She didn’t want anything to do with him. But she was leaving with him. One way or another.
The current bid had already topped what she could afford, but she’d known before she got there that she wouldn’t be able to buy her way out of this one. The contest was down to a trio of picture-perfect examples of Boston society, a brunette, a blonde, and a redhead with a girl-next-door face, the body of a Playboy Playmate, and six figures worth of jewels at her ears, neck, and wrist. She upped the bid by two hundred dollars, but it was the look that passed between her and Daniel Pierce that told Vivi the redhead was going to outlast the others. Because it was rigged, and he was calling the shots.
What he didn’t know was that no one controlled their own destiny. Not even Vivi, and she had a hell of a lot better chance at it than he did. Under normal circumstances. Circumstances, however, weren’t normal, and free choice was only a fond memory.
The back of her neck was prickling like heat rash at a fat farm, and she felt an urgency to do
. The compulsion was stronger than any cautioning thoughts, stronger than the conclusions she’d drawn about Daniel Pierce’s character from seeing him in person, strong enough that she was already at the edge of the stage before she realized her feet were taking her there.
“I need to talk to you,” she said when he looked down at her.
He didn’t reply, at least not verbally. His gaze panned down from her face and over her body, lingering in all the obvious places before he looked up again. Their eyes met, and she jolted. He’d felt it, too; she saw his reaction though he was quicker to hide it, his gaze lifting to the audience of still-screaming women as if Vivi didn’t exist. Of all the reactions she’d expected from him in this situation, being dismissed wasn’t high on the list.
“I’m not too happy about this, either,” she said.
He turned to her again, his eyes narrowing on her face. “What do you want?”
To be anywhere but here.
She didn’t speak, though, and not because she didn’t know what to say. Stage fright was more the issue. The room had grown still, and Daniel Pierce’s eyes weren’t the only ones on her.
“Please take your seat, miss,” the emcee said.
Vivi ignored her. “You have to come with me,” she said to Pierce.
“Miss, the bidding stands at just over three thousand dollars.”
Vivi glanced over at the podium in time to see the woman pass a look over her and dismiss her—not as Daniel had done, without judgment or malice. This dismissal was meant to be an insult.
Vivi laughed softly, not the least offended. If she’d wanted to be one of these tight-assed, snobby, better-than-thou society witches and have a career as arm candy, she could have accepted one of the half-dozen marriage proposals that had come her way in the last seven or eight years. “Well, you put me in my place” was all she said.
The indignation ratcheted up, the politeness down. “If you’d like to have a conversation with Mr. Pierce, you can take your seat and place a bid. If you can afford it.”
“Shut up,” Vivi said sweetly.
The woman hoovered in a breath and pasted on a glare, beckoning someone out of the shadows behind her. Vivi caught movement, a flash of silver, and realized a police officer was in attendance, probably to guard the donations. Or provide riot control.
Vivi rolled her eyes. “I’ll be with you in a minute,” she said to Pierce, and turned to the cop, but not before she caught the amused lift of Daniel’s brow.
She looked over her shoulder at him. No smile on his face, but there was a definite shift in his attitude. He wasn’t sure of her, but the gleam in his eyes told her he was going to sit back and see how she handled herself. So he’d know how to handle her.
Lawyers, she thought as she shifted her focus to the more immediate threat, ranked right below cops on the list of people she despised most. It was unfortunate how often she had to deal with both.
The cop pulled his cuffs out of the holster at the small of his back as he approached her. “Come with me, ma’am,” he said.
“I haven’t done anything wrong.”
“There’s disturbing the peace,” Pierce observed blandly from the stage.
Vivi gazed out over the sea of silent, staring faces. “It appears to me that I reestablished the peace. You were seconds from getting hit in the face with a thong. You should be thanking me.”
He didn’t say anything, but there was no gratitude in his eyes. A little reluctant humor, some impatience and curiosity, but no gratitude. Not that Vivi was expecting any.
“I really need to talk to you,” she said, feeling a little impatient herself. “It’s important.”
Daniel reached into his breast pocket, pulled out his wallet, and handed her a business card. “Call my office and make an appointment.”
“It can’t wait.”
“Then tell me now.”
She considered the rapt audience, the now-avidly attentive emcee, and the cop with his eager expression and shiny bracelets. “Can we go somewhere else?”
“I’m in the middle of something, in case you haven’t noticed.”
“You’re not the type of man who enjoys this kind of ridiculous spectacle.”
“Maybe not, but this ridiculous spectacle happens to be for a good cause.”
“Are you talking about the charity or your campaign for political office?”
His gaze turned even more intense, and there was an assessing manner to it, a looking-below-the-surface quality that made her want to squirm. He didn’t trust her.
Vivi couldn’t blame him. But she had to give him credit because he held out a hand. She took it, long enough to let him help her up onto the stage, then she let go. He wasn’t any more eager to prolong contact, but Vivi made the mistake of rubbing her tingling palm on her jeans. Daniel Pierce noted it with a slight smirk.
“That’s some ego you have there, Ace,” she observed blandly. “You get tired carrying it around?”
His eyes dropped to her chest, lingering on the orchid tattoo peeking out of her tank top. “No. You?”
Vivi resisted the urge to cross her arms over her C cups. “I’ve learned to live with the burden.”
“Any time you want some help with that, you have my card.”
“I think I can handle it by myself, thanks.”
This time his smile was quick and genuine, and she could all but hear him lingering on the word
. She liked the idea, too, any idea he might have that involved
. “How about we discuss something else,” she said before her racing heart and tingling palm could gang up on her self-control and make her do something she’d regret. “Like why I crashed this party.”